03 June 2020

How the gunpowder plot
came to an inevitable end
in a house in Staffordshire

The Littleton Arms in Penkridge … the Littleton family was related by marriage to the Comberford family, and one branch was implicated in the Gunpowder Plot in 1606 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I was writing this morning of how pleased I am to have acquired my own copy of Michael Greenslade’s Catholic Staffordshire, with its stories of recusancy, ‘priests’ holes,’ conspiracies, poverty and family networks.

In one of his many colourful vignettes, Greenslade tells the surprising story of the Staffordshire connections with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and how it came to a grisly end in Staffordshire.

Greenslade recalls how Catholic disappointment with James I was keen in Staffordshire from shortly after his accession to the throne in 1603. However, only a few Catholics in Staffordshire turned to violence and gunpowder treason, and the Gunpowder Plot was finally broken in Staffordshire in a shoot-out at Holbeach, just south of Himley in the south-west of the county.

These events are associated with the home of George Littleton, who had already been in trouble for recusancy in the 1590s, and his home had two ‘priests’ holes. The Littleton family were prominent Catholics, and Walter Littleton of Pillaton in Penkridge had married Alice Comberford.

When Guy Fawkes was captured on 5 November 1605, the ringleader of the Gunpowder Plot, Robert Catesby, escaped with the other plotters to the Midlands in the hope of regrouping and gathering support.

The group was joined by Sir Everard Digby, a nephew of another leading Catholic, Sampson Erdeswick, identified by Greenslade as Staffordshire’s first real county historian, and by Stephen Littleton of Holbeach.

However, as they journeyed on, the group tired and their hopes dimmed. They reach Holbeach at 10 o’clock at night on 7 November 1605. They were being pursued by Sir Richard Walsh, Sheriff of Worcestershire, and a small force, and the plotters hoped to fortify themselves at Holbeach.

As you might expect, the plotters had taken some of their gunpowder with them. But by now the gunpowder was damp and – in a twist that you could not write into the script of a novel – they put it in front of a fire to let it dry. It was unbelievable an inevitable folly.

It was a winter’s night, and it may well have been a roaring fire. But what followed could have been foreseen.

As you might expect, a spark flew from the fire and hit the powder. In the ensuing conflagration, the ringleader, Robert Catesby, and two of his comrades were badly burnt, a fourth member of the gang was blinded, and the house was damaged.

In the confusion, Everard Digby and some other plotters slipped away, hoping to find a way to give themselves up honourably in Warwick.

However, eight of the plotters and a number of their servants were still in the house when Walsh and his troop arrived at Holbeach at noon the following day, 8 November. It must have been easy to find them.

Four of the gang tried to make their escape across the courtyard but were wounded. Catesby and another plotter were shot down at the door of the house and the besieging party rushed in. Three of the plotters were stripped as they lay dying.

In an act of faith or an act of folly, Catesby crawled back into the house, and died clutching an image of the Virgin Mary. The image and a gold crucifix around his neck were seized by the sheriff’s assistant and sent to London as ‘superstitious and popish idols.’

Greenslade goes on to tell how Digby was captured before he could reach Warwick. Stephen Littleton and Robert Winter, one of the original plotters, found various hiding places in the area before eventually reaching Rowley Regis in Worcestershire. There they found shelter in a barn at Hagley before they were taken into Hagley Hall by Stephen Littleton’s first cousin, Humphrey Littleton.

But the story does not end there. The cook, John Fynwood, betrayed the fugitives and they were caught as tried to make good their escape. Humphrey Littleton fled to nearby Prestwood in Kinver, but he too was captured on 9 January 1606.

Sir Everard Digby was taken to the Tower of London, was tried there on 27 January 1606, was found guilty of high treason, and was hanged, drawn and quartered on 30 January 1606.

Humphrey Littleton was executed on 7 April 1606, when he was hanged, drawn and quartered, together with the Jesuit Father Edward Oldcorne, John Wintour, and Ralph Ashley at Red Hill, outside Worcester. John Perkes, the Hagley tenant farmer, and his servant Thomas Burford, were also executed for aiding the fugitives.

As Greenslade remarks, it ‘gives a twist to this story to find that Staffordshire commemorates the Gunpowder Plot in a special way.’ He points out that several streets on a housing estate south-east of Holbeach House are named after people who were part of the plot, including Catesby Drive and Digby Road.

Michael Greenslade, Catholic Staffordshire 1500-1850 Leominster: Gracewing, 2006, xxi + 297 pp, ISBN 978-0-85244-655-3 .

A walk through 350 years
of Catholic history and
families in Staffordshire

Michael Greenslade’s ‘Catholic Staffordshire’ covers 350 years of history

Patrick Comerford

I have written recently about some of the Staffordshire martyrs during the Reformation period and in the decades immediately after the Reformation.

Many members of the Comberford family were arrested and even jailed for their adherence to Catholicism in the 16th century, including Henry Comberford, who lost his position as Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral and end his days in prison in Hull.

I was still in my teens when I was first shown the ‘priests’ hole’ in the Moat House, the Comberford townhouse on Lichfield Street, Tamworth, allowing priests to hide from arrest and escape to waiting boats on the River Tame.

When members of the Comberford family conformed, they were still suspected of being Catholic sympathisers.

Until the Church of Saint Mary and Saint George in Comberford closed in 2013, the parish described itself on its website as being ‘on the traditional side of the Church. That said, we have embraced the new services of Common Worship very happily and also enjoy a mixture of traditional hymns and modern music. But we are Catholic in the best sense of that word, seeing ourselves as rooted in the Holy Eucharist, and the traditional vestments and the reserved sacrament.’

It is a description of a church that would have pleased many members of the Comberford family in previous centuries. When they conformed to Anglicanism, they worshipped in Saint Editha’s, the parish church in Tamworth, where generations of the family are buried in the Comberford Chapel.

James Harrison, a priest arrested at Comberford Hall in 1588, was executed at York in 1602. Comberford Hall may have been used for Masses in the late 16th century, although it was also used briefly for Quaker meetings for a short time in the mid-17th century.

When Robert Comberford died in 1671, the senior male line of the Comberford family died out, but his widow, daughters and grandchildren continued to live at Comberford Hall beyond 1706. Their descendants continued through female lines in prominent Midlands families, including the Brooke, Giffard, Grosvenor, Mostyn, Parry, Slaughter and Smitheman families, and their descendants, many of them prominent Roman Catholics.

But Michael Greenslade believes there ‘was evidently a chapel in the Comberfords’ house at Comberford until the mid-eighteenth century, when the estate was sold.’

In the Elizabethan period, the Comberfords were Catholics and it was whispered that the oak panelling in the Moat House hid more than one ‘priest’s hole’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After the religious changes in the 16th century, Catholicism survived more strongly in Staffordshire than in any other place in England, according to the Staffordshire historian, Michael Greenslade. I had read his Catholic Staffordshire in the library in Lichfield many years ago as I was researching the links between the Giffard and Comberford families. But after writing about Edmund Gennngs and other martyrs in Lichfield in recent weeks, I decided to buy my own copy, and it arrived in the pot last week.

Michael Greenslade joined the staff of the Victoria County History of Staffordshire in 1954, and as County Editor from 1961 to 1995, he produced seven Staffordshire volumes and contributed to others. For 30 years, he also edited Staffordshire Catholic History, the journal of the Staffordshire Catholic History Society. He completed this book, Catholic Staffordshire, shortly before he died in 2005, four weeks after writing the preface.

Cardinal Reginald Pole, Cranmer’s successor and the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, was born in Stourton Castle in south-west Staffordshire. He and Queen Mary died within 12 hours of each other on 17 November 1558. For Greenslade, this date marks the end of the first era of Catholic Staffordshire.

In the following year, the Bishop of Lichfield, Ralph Baynes, died in custody; the Dean of Lichfield, John Ramridge, was sent to the Tower and when he was released on bail escaped to Flanders where he was murdered, and the Precentor of Lichfield; and Henry Comberford, was deprived for ‘lewd preaching and misdemeanour’ and was kept in prison. In time, the Chancellor, the Treasurer and four other canons were also removed.

The schedule of recusants included Henry Comberford’s name, describing him as ‘learned but wilful.’ This is the first occasion that the word ‘recusant’ is used for Roman Catholics. But Greenslade also sees 1559 as the year marking a new Catholic Staffordshire that lasted until 1603.

The leading Catholics in the county included members of the Fitzherbert, Giffard, Wolseley, Erdeswick and Draycott families. Thomas Paget, 3rd Lord Paget, was patron of the composer William Byrd, who managed to hold on to his appointment as a gentleman of the Chapel Royal. But the precarious position of Catholics in Staffordshire was complicated by the presence of Mary Queen of Scots, who was held at Tutbury Castle.

The Erdeswick family home at Sandon was raided and searched regularly. Despite being in constant trouble as a recusant, Sampson Erdeswick played a prominent role in local life, contributing towards building a new shire hall in Stafford and decorating Sandon church with family memorials. He was Staffordshire’s first historian, with only one dry comment on the dissolution of the monasteries. By 1603, Lichfield was the third most recusant diocese in England, after Chester and York.

Saint Chad’s Head Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Greenslade shows how in the 17th century, those Catholic families were ardent royalists and supporters of Charles I and the restoration of his son Charles II. Through sleight of hand in 1650s, the Jesuits managed to take the possession of Saint Chad’s relics, smuggled from Lichfield Cathedral in 1538. Later, many Catholics in Staffordshire became disgruntled with Charles II, and some were accused of a sub-plot connected with the Titus Oates plot, and Lord Stafford was executed in 1680. He was hardly a hero, and it was said he ‘was not a man beloved, especially of his own family.’ Still, he was beatified in 1929.

Surprisingly, Staffordshire Catholics showed little sign of Jacobite sympathies. They suffered their own internal divisions when it came to clerical discipline, but toleration continued to grow throughout the 18th century, helped in part not because of developments in Ireland but because of the arrival of religious refugees from revolutionary France.

Emancipation came in law in 1829, and Greenslade takes us through to Pugin’s arrival in Staffordshire, through the patronage of the Talbot family of Alton Towers. His churches, convents and colleges are scattered throughout Staffordshire. Many regard ‘perfect Cheadle’ as his crowning glory, although there was second triumph in finding a home for Saint Chad’s relics in Pugin’s new cathedral in Birmingham.

Grenslade’s elegantly told history brings readers to Pope Pius IX’s restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in in England and Wales in 1850. Post-Famine Irish immigrants changed the shape and nature of Catholicism in Staffordshire from the 1850s on. But their stories are beyond the period covered in this volume, as is the story of Frederick Oakeley from Lichfield, who became a Roman Catholic and wrote the English version of Come all ye faithful.

Perhaps someone else needs to write similar studies of the Irish Catholic immigrants and of the influence of the Oxford Movement on Victorian Anglicans in Staffordshire who became Roman Catholics.

Pugin’s interior, including his rood screen, remain largely intact in Saint Giles’s Church, Cheadle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Michael Greenslade, Catholic Staffordshire 1500-1850 Leominster: Gracewing, 2006, xxi + 297 pp, ISBN 978-0-85244-655-3 .